Interview with Chris Anokute, Senior Vice President of A&R at Island Def Jam Records

Chris Anokute
Chris Anokute

Update: Chris Anokute is now Senior Vice President of A&R at Epic Records.

Chris Anokute, who works as a high-level A&R exec for Island Def Jam Records in their Los Angeles office, has emerged during the past decade as one of the top young A&R execs in the music business. Only 29 years old, Anokute has held key A&R positions at Virgin/Capitol Records, Universal Motown Records, and now Island Def Jam.

Anokute is probably best known for being Katy Perry’s A&R exec, helping to sign her to Virgin Records, and then A&R-ing her two, multi-platinum albums, One Of The Boys and Teenage Dream. These two albums contained such worldwide hits as “I Kissed A Girl,” “Hot n Cold,” “Waking Up In Vegas,” “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Firework,” “E.T.,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “The One That Got Away” and “Part Of Me.”

In addition, Anokute (when he was at Motown) A&R’d Kelly Rowland’s hit album Here I Am, which featured the hit ‘Motivation.” Earlier in his career, Anokute had his own management & publishing company, and he signed a writer named Alisha Brooks who co-wrote the #1 hit, “Pon De Replay.” Anokute pitched the demo of “Pon De Replay” to Rihanna’s producers, which eventually led to Rihanna having a breakthrough hit with this song.

Currently, Anokute is Senior Vice President of A&R at Island Def Jam, where he is working with such artists as Jennifer Lopez and Kerli. Also, Anokute has signed several promising new artists, and he’s on the lookout for great new talent.

We are pleased to present this special Q&A interview with Chris Anokute. He tells how he got started, how he landed his first A&R job, and how he worked with Katy Perry. He also discusses his current projects at Island Def Jam.

DK: How did you get your start in the music business?

Anokute: I grew up in New Jersey–my parents were immigrants from Nigeria. When I was 17 I would hang out at Justin’s Restaurant in New York (which was owned by Puffy Combs), because many people in the music business would go there. I wanted to meet people in the music industry [and get a job]. I spotted a Navigator car, which had the license plate “NIPPY” (the nickname for Whitney Houston), so I figured the man in the car was someone related to Whitney. In fact, it was John Houston, Whitney’s father & manager. I knocked on the car door and started talking with John. I asked if he needed an intern. John soon became a mentor to me; he showed me the ropes and took me under his wing. We would meet once a week, often for dinner on Sundays. He was the first person to teach me about the music business, from his perspective.

DK: What was your first job at a record label?

Anokute: I got an internship at Def Jam Records through a family friend who’s an entertainment attorney. This was in 2001. This was great because I grew up always wanting to work for Def Jam and Motown. I just had an affirmation for those company brands. I started as an intern in the A&R administration department, and I eventually became an assistant. I would work there for 12 hours a day, from 10 am to 10 at night. I learned the administrative side of A&R: booking studios, handling royalty payments, cutting checks, mastering, label copy, delivering records–doing whatever I needed to do and everything they asked of me.

Chris Anokute with Kelly Rowland.
Chris Anokute with Kelly Rowland.

I learned a lot doing A&R administration. I worked on a wide range of music projects, from Jay-Z, Bon Jovi, Hoobastank–all kinds of music. I saw many documents and read everything I could to teach myself the music business. I learned about how rock producers got paid versus urban producers, and many other aspects of the business. I worked at Def Jam for 2 1/2 years.

DK: Did you also have a management company?

Anokute: Yes. While I was working at Def Jam, I was also able to start a management company. I was partners with an attorney, Stephen Chukumba. We signed writers and producers; I was 21 when we started this company.

DK: What were some of the projects you worked on with your management company?

Anokute:  I was able to get a meeting with (CEO) Clive Davis and showcased an artist for him. I got one of my artists a big publishing deal with Monti Olson & Deirdre O’Hara at BMG Songs. Another songwriter I managed was Alisha Brooks. I approached producer Vada Nobles (who is known for producing Lauryn Hill) and he gave me some tracks for Alisha to write to. One of the tracks became the smash “Pon De Replay” for Rihanna, which Alisha co-wrote.

DK: “Pon De Replay” was Rihanna’s breakthrough hit. How did you place this song with Rihanna?

Anokute: My attorney Scott Felcher called me and said his clients, (hit writer/producers) Carl Sturken & Evan Rogers were working with a then-unknown young artist named Rihanna, who was from Barbados. They were looking for songs for her. So we sent them the demo of “Pon De Replay.” They loved it, and so they recorded it on Rihanna. Then Sturken & Rogers (with Felcher) walked into Def Jam Records to pitch Rihanna for a label deal. This was when I still worked at Def Jam, so I saw them come into the office. The meeting lasted a long time, and by the end of the evening Def Jam had signed Rihanna to a label deal. And then I learned that ‘Pon De Replay” would be Rihanna’s first single, so that was fantastic news.

I soon left my temp position @ Def Jam. “Pon De Replay” became a huge hit in 12 countries, reaching #1 on the charts in just six weeks. Then about nine months later, I received my first royalty check for my publishing interest in this song. The check was large and it was a great moment; I was just 23 at the time. I decided to focus on building my own company.

DK: Were there other artists you managed at that time?

Anokute: Yes. I represented (alternative rap act) J Mello, and we were able to get him a label deal with Def Jam. I’d brought J Mello into the Def Jam office and we sat in the lounge. We ran into (the late music exec) Shakir Stewart, and J Mello started rapping for him. He ended up showcasing for three Def Jam execs that same day, including top execs Karen Kwak and L.A. Reid. This led to J Mello signing with Def Jam.

DK: How did you land your first A&R exec job, with Virgin/Capitol Records?

Pictured (l-r): Chris Anokute, Dr. Luke, Katy Perry and Tricky Stewart.
Pictured (l-r): Chris Anokute, Dr. Luke, Katy Perry and Tricky Stewart.

Anokute: I was shopping a female artist for a label deal, and we did a showcase for (veteran music exec) Jason Flom, who was now CEO of Virgin Records (and the Capitol Music Group). Jason was blown away by her, and was even more blown away by my energy, and on the spot, asked me if I would like to do A&R. I said, ‘For real?..That would be my dream’, so he introduced me to his COO Jeff Kempler. Jeff had worked at Def Jam and knew me, so he and Jason agreed to hire me. For the first six months I was an A&R Consultant, but then I was promoted to be Senior Director of A&R.

Jason assigned me a major artist to work with: Joss Stone. Joss already had two big albums (The Soul Sessions and Mind, Body & Soul); I A&R’d her next album, Introducing Joss  Stone, which went platinum. It was great working with Joss–I introduced her to Dallas Austin, Raphael Saadiq and Common to collaborate, and set up a duet with Lauryn Hill. The album was recorded in Barbados.

I really appreciated the opportunity Jason Flom gave me to do A&R–he believed in me. He introduced me to everybody in the business. He took me to Grammy Awards and Grammy parties. Then in 2007, I went to a Grammy party and met Angelica Cob, who was working (doing publicity/media relations) at Columbia Records. She told me about a young (unknown) artist named Katy Perry who was signed to Columbia Records. Angelica said that Katy was about to be dropped by Columbia, and that I should sign her to Virgin Records. She sent me a couple cuts by Katy which included “Waking Up In Vegas.” I also saw a video of Katy which was great. So then I met with David Wolter (then Head of A&R at Virgin) and played him Katy’s songs. David liked it, and said I should play it for Jason. Jason liked it, so Jason and I flew to Los Angeles to see Katy Perry showcase at the Viper Room.

We went to the showcase and we did see Katy’s star potential. We didn’t immediately sign her, but eventually Angelica (who was now working at Virgin) and I tagged team and pushed for Katy to be signed to Virgin. Jason agreed and said, “Let’s do it.”

I really appreciated the opportunity Jason Flom gave me to do A&R–he believed in me. He introduced me to everybody in the business. He took me to Grammy Awards and Grammy parties. Then in 2007, I went to a Grammy party and met Angelica Cob, who was working (doing publicity/media relations) at Columbia Records. She told me about a young (unknown) artist named Katy Perry who was signed to Columbia Records. Angelica said that Katy was about to be dropped by Columbia, and that I should sign her to Virgin Records. She sent me a couple cuts by Katy which included “Waking Up In Vegas.” I also saw a video of Katy which was great. So then I met with David Wolter (then Head of A&R at Virgin) and played him Katy’s songs. David liked it, and said I should play it for Jason. Jason liked it, so Jason and I flew to Los Angeles to see Katy Perry showcase at the Viper Room.

Chris Anokute with Katy Perry, receiving an award for multi-platinum sales.
Chris Anokute with Katy Perry, receiving an award for multi-platinum sales.

We went to the showcase and we did see Katy’s star potential. We didn’t immediately sign her, but eventually Angelica (who was now working at Virgin) and I tagged team and pushed for Katy to be signed to Virgin. Jason agreed and said, “Let’s do it.”

DK: That’s a great achievement, being involved with Katy Perry’s massive success. What was it like A&R-ing Katy’s two hit albums?

Anokute: I A&R’d her first two albums (One Of The Boys and Teenage Dream). Jason was very supportive and helpful–he introduced Katy to (hit writer/producer) Dr. Luke. Half of her first album contained songs that were recorded from her previous deal at  Columbia, including “Waking Up In Vegas”. Then we A&R’d the remainder of the album. Around this time, Katy wrote “I Kissed A Girl” which became her breakthrough hit. I remember when Katy first played me the song–I thought it was a smash. I made sure everyone (at the label) believed in that song. We released it as a single and it became a hit overnight. From that point the momentum never stopped, with hit after hit. After “I Kissed A Girl” came “Hot n Cold,” followed by “Waking Up in Vegas”.

DK: Katy’s next album Teenage Dream became an even greater success. How did you A&R this album?

Anokute: For the second album, my advice was that the new album should be more rhythmic. I looked at the success of Beyonce and Rihanna, and thought it would be good to move in that direction. I set up Katy to collaborate with (writer/producer) Tricky Stewart, who had done (Rihanna’s hit) “Umbrella”. I also introduced her to Stargate (writing/producing team) and Ester Dean. Then we connected with Dr. Luke and Max Martin again (who worked with Perry on One Of The Boys). The Teenage Dream album was completed in just four months. We went to Las Vegas to work with Tricky Stewart. Then Katy went to New York to work with Stargate, and they created “Firework”. She recorded (only) 14 songs for the album; there wasn’t any extra songs or fluff. Katy only wrote songs that she knew would make the record–she was very focused.

The album was finished by May 2010. It was easy to recognize the hits and we knew it would be big. Working with Katy, I learned to trust the artist. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the way. Katy was the architect–I just got the people into the room with her. It was amazing to work with Katy–we had 10 #1 records.

DK: With your success at Virgin (which merged with Capitol Records), why did you decide to leave the label?

Anokute: There was new management when the merger happened. Jason Flom and other execs I worked with were no longer there. Due to the merger (and the upcoming sale of the label), it became clear that I would be able to sign more artists if I left for an A&R position at another company. So I finished my commitment of working with Katy Perry on her Teenage Dream album, and then I left to become Senior Vice President of A&R at Universal Motown  Records, working with (CEO) Sylvia Rhone, who hired me. I started working there in June 2010.

DK: As it turned out, there would also be changes at Motown Records.

Anokute: Yes. There were changes at Motown, and Sylvia Rhone left the company. But I did get a chance (at Motown) to A&R Kelly Rowland’s hit album, Here I Am. Kelly had the hit song “Motivation” which became a platinum single, and her album went gold.

DK: After the shakeup at Motown, then what happened?

Anokute: It worked out for the best, because I began working at Island Def Jam Records (also owned by Universal). I now work closely with Karen Kwak (Executive VP/Head of A&R) and Barry Weiss (Chairman/CEO). It’s been great working with both of them. I knew Karen from when I first worked years earlier at Def Jam, and Barry Weiss to me is the best music exec that I’ve worked for.

DK: What are your new artist projects at Island Def Jam?

Anokute: Currently I’m working with Jennifer Lopez on her upcoming dance album. I’m also working with Kerli on her new album. I’m happy to work with any of the (IDJ) artists Barry and Karen want me to.

I’m also signing new artists. I’ve signed an excellent female artist named Avery–she’s like a new school Avril Lavigne, pop/alternative. She’s a huge internet phenomenon. Avery’s first single is called “The Weekend” and it will be released in early summer. I’ve also signed Baby E; he’s a genre buster–he sings, he raps and he rocks. He signed a publishing deal with Dr. Luke’s company, Prescription Songs.

DK:  You’ve achieved so much success at such a young age. What would be your advice, to young people who want to break into the music business and do A&R?

Anokute: Be excited about any job you can get in the music business–make that job the best you can. Be excited and be passionate. Believe in yourself–believe that you can someday become the President of a label and develop superstar acts. But first, you need to pay your dues and be humble. You have to study your craft and do research, including studying the charts. Talk to everybody; Jason Flom taught me to return everyone’s phone calls and email, because you never know where the next star or great opportunity will come from. And don’t be afraid to fail.